Vice President Kamala Harris had some words of advice for Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan last year after Congress passed the Biden administration’s sweeping health care, tax, and climate law.
“It is disadvantaged and low-income communities that are on the front lines of climate impacts,” Regan recounted Harris telling him in her West Wing office as he prepared to distribute billions of dollars as a part of President Joe Biden’s climate agenda.
“This is a moment in time where not only can these resources be used to stop or slow down these climate impacts, but to rebuild our communities through economic development,” Regan said Harris told him.
Though Harris’ advice was specifically talking about how to dole out money for the EPA program now known as the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund – a $20 billion clean energy loan program funded by the Inflation Reduction Act – aides say it’s that mentality that the vice president has conveyed throughout the administration in behind-the-scenes conversations, joining many other administration-wide officials who have helped how the $750 billion from the law is invested.
It’s a preview of the message Harris will take on the road as she steps up her public messaging on climate with the administration moving into hyperdrive to sell the Inflation Reduction Act to voters – especially since recent polls say voter still don’t know what’s in the sweeping legislation.
“She understands the power of the vice presidency to ensure agencies maximize coordination of resources and expertise to make sure communities that have been locked out benefit from these investments,” Dr. Ike Irby, Harris’ chief climate adviser, told CNN.
The vice president is expected to keep busy schedule of climate-related events, including talking to students and young voters on an issue central to them as well private sector announcements and ribbon cutting events.
That effort continued Tuesday when the vice president traveled to Seattle for an event highlighting clean energy alongside second gentleman Doug Emhoff and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, an ally of Harris’. There, Harris pledged the administration’s full support for the people of Hawaii, where at least 99 people have died following catastrophic wildfires across the island of Maui over the weekend, warning, “It is clear the clock is not just ticking, it is banging” for the country to address climate change.
“[Harris] is a big champion of underdog communities, disadvantaged communities that have been bisected by infrastructure that has ultimately harmed them,” Granholm told CNN in an interview on Monday.
The Tuesday event was part of a larger attempt by the White House to keep focus on the one-year anniversary of the Inflation Reduction Act’s passage. Harris was one of many senior officials traveling across the country to mark the occasion.
But despite the elevated travel, a Washington Post-UMD poll out early August found 71% of Americans have heard “little” or “nothing at all” about the legislation one year after its enactment, making Harris’ soft shift to a more public role in the bills selling a timely one.
“She’s done a lot of ribbon cuttings,” a climate advocate said. But the reality is, they said, the White House’s “solution of road tours of cabinet secretaries and the VP isn’t working” to get the message across.
Implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act has largely been carried out by White House senior adviser John Podesta – a longtime Democratic operative and former top climate adviser to former President Barack Obama.
Podesta also works closely with White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi and the US Treasury Department, which has been tasked with providing guidance on the build of law’s climate provisions, many of which are clean energy tax credits.
Granholm, who also works to implement the funds, said she spoke with Harris in January about equitable distribution before a moderated conversation at the University of Michigan.
“She’s been super interested in the ‘How,’” Granholm said. “The ‘How are we going to get to the president’s goal of 40% of the investments from the Inflation Reduction Act being in disadvantaged communities or marginalized communities, rural communities that really have been left behind?’”
Granholm was referring to the Biden administration’s signature environmental justice program, called Justice40, which attempts to address racial and class inequalities by giving 40% of the benefits from specific federal investments to disadvantaged communities impacted by pollution.
“And so, we talked a good deal about how [Energy Department] was implementing that strategy,” Granholm added.
The vice president has also been convening more private events with advocates outside of the administration – like a poolside Earth Day celebration this April at the Naval Observatory with climate and environmental justice leaders, along with celebrities and individuals on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
“That was around the time we were hearing a lot from them [VP’s office] that she wants to do more” on the issue of climate and clean energy, one advocate told CNN. “She has actively been reaching out to our community, I want to do more on climate, how can I do that.”
Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director at the CLEO Institute, told CNN she received the same message from Harris’ office. Arditi-Rocha first met the vice president when she came to Miami last August to announce $1 billion in federal funding to protect coastal cities from rising sea levels and storms surges.
“There has been a really open line of communication from her team and us,” Arditi-Rocha said in an interview. “It’s been incredible to see that kind of outreach from the White House.”
In one of her visits to Miami, Harris took so much interest in a fellowship that the CLEO Institute hosts to equip women of color on the frontlines of the effects of climate change that she wrote a note to congratulate one woman for completing her course.
“I am inspired by leaders like you,” the letter, obtained by CNN, read. “I commend you for your work to empower and educate women in the fight for environmental and climate justice.”
Officials say Harris’ relationship with the CLEO institute is just one of the ways the vice president has foraged relationships with key stakeholders in the climate arena.
The vice president has held more than 15 events and meetings focused on touting the provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act. A major focus has been attending events on college campuses and high schools, aiming to sell the administration’s efforts directly to the consumers most motivated by the climate: young voters.
Mariah Rosensweig, an incoming freshman at University of Colorado Boulder, was one of 15 students of all ages to meet Harris privately after a major climate event in Colorado earlier this year.
“She heard from every single student and responded very thoroughly to each person in the room,” Rosensweig recalled to CNN.
Advocates say the vice president has made a concerted effort to do more public on climate over the last year, following decades of climate championship dating back to her years as a district attorney in San Francisco.
“Do I think that she has upped her game on climate as far as trying to make it an issue, part of her brand, and something she wants to focus on? Yes,” Jamal Raad, who co-founded climate and clean energy group Evergreen Action, told CNN. “To her credit, she has really stepped up” on public announcements about the IRA, they added.